‘Free’ Speech: Getting Our Rights Wrong

The following reflection was written by Hannah Malcolm DIV ’16.  Hannah is the Rev. John Magee Fellow for Dwight Hall at Yale and a candidate for M.A.R. in World Christianities, Yale Divinity School.

Hurting members of our community have told us again and again that they need to be heard. So why are we so bad at listening?

The deep-seated nature of the problems aired on campus this week cannot be allowed to die down and be forgotten as victims get tired and spectators get bored. At Dwight Hall, we believe that service to others and a pursuit of social good not only honours the humanity of others around us, but also teaches us to realise our own in a way that study alone cannot do. Briana’s powerful op-ed in the YDN, which details her experience of trying to encourage participation in service even while being a victim of racist and sexist abuse, highlights the seriousness of the problem that exists. It doesn’t seem to be enough to offer learning opportunities to those particularly guilty of this behaviour. Something far more entrenched must be addressed.

One of the most concerning patterns of conversation I have noticed over the last week on campus is the confusion of bullying, selective hearing, and harassment with ‘liberal values’. We want to encourage freedom of speech, yes. But children in the playground are not allowed to verbally and physically abuse other children without reaping the consequences, and nor are adults in the workplace. Why have we allowed the rumour to circulate that, unlike the rest of our learning and working lives, college should be consequence free? If we are so keen to defend our rights to free speech and debate, we have to demonstrate that we can carry them out properly. Once the defence of ‘free speech’ is reduced to the defence of hurtful costumes and comments, it loses its power. Even the most ‘free’ of ‘free speech’ proponents would acknowledge that, socially and legally, there is a limit to what someone is allowed to say in any given context without backlash or condemnation. If Yale is supposed to prepare its students for the world after college, even the most privileged must learn that their actions have consequences.

While the Yale administration may have failed to tackle this kind of behaviour and allowed campus culture to continue its hostility toward minority communities, it is too easy to simply blame them. Doing so allows us to believe we have successfully identified the source of the problem, and it isn’t us. But we know it isn’t that simple: students arrive here with pre-existing prejudices and casually racist attitudes that they have breathed in and breathed out long before they arrived in New Haven. We need to go through a process of ‘unlearning’, which does not assume that we know and can name the pain felt by people who are ‘other’ to us. This will take time, and a willingness to shut up occasionally, and deciding not to try to find quick fixes for gaping wounds. We can only do this if we are willing to admit that a culture that is violent towards women of colour is a culture that is sick. We will not like the cure, because we are so used to living with and believing that we benefit from our sickness. But Racism and Misogyny are not ‘their’ problems, they are ours. They are the symptoms of our refusal to recognize the humanity of others. And, as we fail to recognize another’s humanity, we fail to live out our own.

Hannah Malcolm

Rev. John Magee Fellow, Dwight Hall at Yale
M.A.R. World Christianities, Yale Divinity School

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